Late afternoon sunlight

Wellington Chamber Music presents:
Aroha String Quartet with Rachel Vernon (clarinet)

St Andrew’s-on-The-Terrace

Sunday, 1 May 2022

This was the first concert of a new season for Wellington Chamber Music, and the organisers must have been anxious. The pandemic has changed audiences and the business of giving concerts. Would they come?

They needn’t have worried. St Andrew’s was pleasantly full for this delightful concert, featuring Rachel Vernon on clarinet.

The Aroha Quartet have been regular performers here over the years – they were founded in 2004 – and they have their own following. But the pandemic has worked some changes on the Quartet, too.  Concerts were cancelled in 2020 and again in 2021, and cellist Robert Ibell had to take time off after an injury last year. Today Anne Loeser was guesting as second violin, although you would never have suspected, such was the rapport between the players.

Two of the works in today’s programme were familiar: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major, K 581, and Brahms’s great Clarinet Quintet in B minor, Opus 115. Sandwiched in between these chamber classics was a mysterious little work by Astor Piazzolla, called Oblivion. What could it be?

Mozart’s Quintet of 1789 is a delightful work. Mozart took the clarinet seriously, and helped to establish the instrument as a member of the orchestral woodwind section. He wrote this quintet for the clarinetist Anton Stadler, and subsequently referred to it as the ‘Stadler Quartet’. Stadler played it on the bassett clarinet, which has four additional low notes compared with a standard clarinet. These days the work is usually performed on the clarinet in A flat (and no one is quite sure where those low notes were used, as Mozart’s original manuscripts have never been found).

From the opening phrase of the first movement, the group established their characteristically warm sound, incorporating the deep sonority of the clarinet’s first entry. The balance was beautiful and the phrasing graceful. The cello’s pizzicato passage with the lyrical first violin above set the style for the work: refined, stylistic, beautiful.  The second Larghetto movement unfurls long, long phrases from the clarinet over muted strings. The clarinet is always moving over the more static string passages. There was lyrical playing from first violinist Haihong Liu.

The third movement, Menuetto, is rhythmic and dance-like, with a lovely aria from the clarinet. The middle section, two trios, features some thrilling clarinet playing, first very low, then high, as though to show off what the instrument is capable of. (After all, it wasn’t invented until 1788, the year before Mozart wrote this quintet.) The fourth movement is a theme and variations, which sometimes buried the clarinet in the string texture. There are some fast passages in which the strings chase each other, with the clarinet maintaining a calm presence over the top.

Next came the Piazzolla work. This was fantastic. It began life as film music, written for a film called Enrico IV, which was itself based on the play by Pirandello. But such is the beauty of the writing that the work is often performed as a concert piece, either for bandoneon (as in the film) or adapted for other instruments, including the clarinet, as here. There’s a famous version for string orchestra with Gidon Kremer on violin, another for solo guitar, and even one for two cellos and ice-skater. For me, knowing nothing of these, the string quartet and clarinet version was completely perfect, with loss, longing, and resignation balanced between the voices.

The film is described as a tragicomedy, but tragedy is to the fore in Oblivion. It opens with a weighty and complex sadness, with the clarinet shimmering in and up the scale, first lyrical, then grave. The string writing is passionate, the clarinet calming, a clear true voice. Finally, the cello somehow turns into a bandoneon, with low throbbing from the clarinet before it disappears into a trill. It is a short work. As soon as it had finished, I wanted to hear it again.

If you want to get a sense of this small perfect work, by all means listen to it on YouTube, but you will not experience the beauty of Rachel Vernon’s playing, or the sympathetic accompaniment of the Aroha Quartet.

The last work on the programme was Brahms’s Quintet in B minor for clarinet and string quartet. Like Mozart, Brahms was moved to write a quintet because of the playing of a virtuoso clarinettist. In 1890, no sooner had he announced that he had retired from composing than he heard the playing of Richard Mühlfeld, and promptly de-retired.

This is another well-known and beloved work. For me it shimmers with late afternoon sunlight. That is not to say it lacks drama. There is a moment of passionate agitation in the first movement, yet the darkness is followed by golden light. The second movement is slow and sad, as though the performers are walking, carrying a great weight. The clarinet sings of loss, but also beauty. The third pastorale movement, with its rushing, scurrying strings, allows the clarinet to sing. The fourth movement is a set of variations. It finishes by using the material from the first movement, returning to us the golden shafts of sunlight, falling between the trees. A short duet between clarinet and viola over pizzicato cello, and then a gentle falling into silence.

There are three more performances of this programme. The ones in Rangiora and Thames are probably too far, but if you get a chance to go to Wanganui for their concert on 13 September, take it. A gorgeous first concert to open Wellington Chamber Music’s 2022 season.

What I would take through death’s dark door

New Zealand String Quartet National Tour
Programme 2:  MOZART – String Quartet No 21 in D, K. 575
LOUISE WEBSTER – this memory of earth
SHOSTAKOVICH – String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op. 122
MENDELSSOHN – String Quartet No 2 in A minor, Op. 13

St Peter’s Church, Willis Street, Wellington

Sunday, 14 November 2021

This concert, like its predecessor on Friday 12 November, was delayed by the Covid-19 Level 4/3 restrictions in August and September, and was also displaced from the Hunter Council Chamber to St Peter’s Church. The change of venue was positive. Although the NZSQ has never performed in the church before, it is an excellent venue for chamber music, with its warm and rather dry acoustic contributing to a clear and intimate sound.

The first work on the programme was the well-known String Quartet No 21, K. 575 of Mozart, written as the first of a set of six commissioned by King Frederick William II, a keen cellist. It’s a delightful work, and was played with great style and charm. Because the quartet was written for a cellist, it is impossible to ignore how Mozart made sure to give the cello-playing King plenty to do, occasionally popping out of the texture with an attractive short solo, or in duet with one of the other voices. The allegretto final movement features lovely cello solos beneath an agitated theme that is passed around the upper voices, before the first theme reappears like a burst of brilliant sunshine.

The Louise Webster work did not suffer by being sandwiched in between Mozart and Shostakovich. It was commissioned by the NZSQ, and was first performed in May 2020. Its title, ‘this memory of earth’, was taken from a poem called ‘Fields in Midsummer’ by the New Zealand poet Ruth Dallas (1919-2008), a nature poet who often struck an elegiac tone. The composer (who is also, we were told, a paediatrician and child psychologist) writes: ‘Our earliest memories of the land shape who we are, who we become. …At a time when our world is under such threat, these threads of memory nudge us, reminding us of what we must hold, treasure,reclaim, rebuild…’

The piece is built up of tiny pieces of melody and rhythmic fragments tossed from part to part, evoking memories of the natural world – bird song, often in Violin 1, sometimes over a weird metallic drone created by the inner parts, with sad chords and fast rising glissandi, and the occasional strident outburst. Often the cello part creates an undertow of sadness, reminding us insistently of loss. The complete line from Dallas’s poem is relevant: ‘This memory of earth I would take through death’s dark door’.

This was a beautiful work, insisting upon the memories we carry within us, and on the vulnerability of the natural world. My notes say towards the end: ‘A melody, finally, but almost admonitory: “Do you not see this?” Emphatic sombre cello. Human voice, low and lyrical. Tutti now – but grey harmonies.’

I could have done with hearing the Webster played twice, because there is so much material to understand, and it is hard to make sense of as a whole on first hearing. There is a constant on-rush of new ideas, and many extraordinary brief effects. The Dallas title was well chosen. The composer’s close observation of nature imbued with a strong sense of loss was perfectly suited to Dallas (and perhaps too to the COP26 Summit being held in Glasgow over the past fortnight).

The Shostakovich quartet (No 11 in F minor, Op. 122, written in 1966) would, I thought, have been sufficient to make a complete concert on its own. Despite lasting only 15 minutes, it contains enough music for an entire symphony. The quartet was written not long after Shostakovich’s 13th Symphony, which is based on the ‘Babi Yar’ poems of the Soviet poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko was phenomenally popular in the sixties, sufficiently so to get away with publishing the poems, which are about the massacre of Jews at Babi Yar, near Kiev, by the Nazis in 1941. The Soviets were covertly anti-Semitic, and Yevtushenko’s poem both memorialises the atrocity and exposes the complicity of the Soviet authorities, who had not so much as marked the site of the massacre.

The seven short movements of the quartet, played without pausing, evoke the poems, the massacre, and the cynical brutality of the Soviet state. This is angry music, in which the composer seems to conform to the will of the Soviet authorities but provides the most severe and withering critique of their actions. It was written with great courage. For years Shostakovich kept a suitcase packed ready by the door of his flat, so that if he was dragged off to prison in the middle of the night by the KGB, his family would not be disturbed.

The sixth movement, Elegy, was intensely personal. It was written to commemorate the death of Vassily Shirinsky, second violinist in the famous and long-running Beethoven Quartet, which premiered 13 of Shostakovich’s 15 quartets (and whose mantle was passed to the Borodin Quartet). Shostakovich, Rolf Gjelsten told us in his introduction to the work, ‘felt as though he had lost the ground from underneath him’ when his friend died. The first violin has much to tell us about Shirinsky, but the insistent bom-bom-bom rhythm from the cello tells us that nothing can be done. We are standing around a grave. The second violin has stopped playing, just as Shirinsky has.

This was a stupendous performance, bleak and deeply moving. The concert seemed complete. But there was more. After a short interval, we were treated to an early Mendelssohn work, String Quartet No 2 in A minor (Op. 13). It was written when Mendelssohn was only 18 (but with the musical maturity of a 36-year-old) and had just fallen in love with a girl. It is as sunny and lyrical a work as you can imagine, returning us to a world in which beauty, love, and possibility are all around us. This provided a lovely pairing for the Mozart Quartet that opened the concert, as though we needed to be de-gaussed before returning to our lives.

And finally, the Quartet presented an uncharacteristic encore. In this case it was a thank-you to the Turnovsky Endowment Trust, which has supported the NZSQ in its annual National Tour for 20 years. Fred and Lotti Turnovsky’s daughter Helen was present for the acknowledgement, which came in the form of a very Czech polka from the Second String Quartet by the Turnovskys’ compatriot Bedrich Smetana. The idiomatic rhythms gestured to the Shostakovich, but the polka was an innocent and merry dance of joy, a celebration of the Czech national style, not a satirical commentary on totalitarianism.

In all, it felt more like two concerts worth of music, gloriously played. Fred Turnovsky’s vision for bringing the music of great European composers to New Zealand audiences, and his support for the NZSQ, were truly honoured.

From the Bush to the Ballroom: the NZSQ Plays Music from Aotearoa and Central Europe

The New Zealand String Quartet

2021 National Tour –  Programme 1

HAYDN – String Quartet Op. 76, No. 4 “Sunrise”
FARR –  Te Kōanga
LIGETI –  String Quartet No. 1 “Métamorphoses nocturnes”
DVORAK –  String Quartet No. 10, Op. 51

The Public Trust Hall, Wellington

Friday, 12 November 2021

This concert was billed as a “Premium Concert Experience,” the kind of language that sets the teeth of a crusty old pedant like me somewhat on edge. It refers in this instance to a format involving tables instead of serried rows of chairs, with drinks and canapés served at the interval, a concept that also struck me initially as rather naff.  However, I ended up enjoying it thoroughly, partly because it was well done (the hall did not smell like a restaurant, the drinks and canapés were modest and discreetly served, and I didn’t hear anyone slurping during the music!), and partly because the elegant interior of the Public Trust Hall lends itself quite nicely to this atmosphere of discreet bourgeois luxury. The Haydn quartet that opened the programme completed the illusion of being, perhaps, a relatively anonymous guest at the Esterházy court enjoying the fruits of their musical patronage.  (In actual fact we were enjoying the fruits of the Turnovsky Endowment Trust’s patronage — the Trust has supported the Quartet for two decades as of this year — and the strong Austro-Hungarian orientation of the music programmed for this national tour of the NZSQ pays homage to Frederick Turnovsky’s Central European roots, with Czech composers especially featured.)  To my surprise, it was also easier to focus on the music while sitting comfortably at a table rather than in a row of seats; the sightlines were better, and one felt less like a sardine and more like a patron of the arts.  In short: five stars, would attend a “premium concert experience” again.

Of course it didn’t hurt that the music itself was exquisite. It is always a huge pleasure to watch the NZSQ perform; they are so attentive to one another, communicating through their body language both the mood of the music and the relationships within it.  The Haydn “Sunrise” quartet comes by its name honestly, opening with a warm, sustained B-flat major chord in the three lower voices from which the first violin takes off on a series of upward runs that immediately evoke the rising sun. The motif returns throughout the movement (occasionally inverted, sometimes in a minor key suggesting clouds over the sun) and gets passed around from instrument to instrument, while in between the four lines chase each other around in semiquavers that variously evoke running water, scurrying animals, chattering birds, etc. Much opportunity here to enjoy both the individual voices of the Quartet’s four excellent members and the various dialogues forming and dissolving between players, a texture the NZSQ performs brilliantly.  

This “Allegro con spirito” nature study was succeeded by a chorale-like Adagio that largely tethered the lower voices together in a chordal texture while the first violin again soared above in rippling arabesques — the Hungarian Count von Erdődy to whom the Op. 76 quartets are dedicated must have had a first violinist he enjoyed listening to.  The rising semitones from the first movement carried through the second and into the third, a robust and jolly Menuetto that transported the hearer straight to an Eastern European tavern and the very thick of a peasant dance. Strongly rhythmic, as if to evoke stomping feet, the Menuetto also features octave unisons in the violins over a bass drone in the cello that conjured bagpipes in our midst.  One often hears the expression “not a dry eye in the house,” but in this case I think there was not a wet eye in the house; the mirth and jollity of this movement was too contagious. A somewhat more aristocratic-feeling folk dance — say, a ballroom adaptation — formed the atmosphere of the Finale, with the four instruments again passing around fragments of the main theme, coalescing into brief and various alliances without sticking out from the collective.  An accelerating and intensifying coda brought things to a satisfying conclusion and left the audience in no doubt about when to applaud.

If the Haydn quartet transported us by turns to a meadow, a church, a tavern, and a ballroom, Gareth Farr’s 2017 work Te Kōanga took us to the Marlborough Sounds of the composer’s holidays as a teenager, when — according to the Quartet’s programme notes — he heard, and noted down, the song of a particular tui whose voice is immortalised in the piece’s opening bars. Rather than a stylized Classical impression of avian dawn choruses, then, Te Kōanga (“spring” or “planting season” in te reo Māori) offered direct transcriptions of native birdsong — specifically, two tuis and a weka — which gradually gathered into a rich, rhythmic texture in the top three voices while the cello provided a jazzy pizzicato bass line underneath.  The piece, commissioned as a memorial to Wellington luthier and cellist Ian Lyons by his family, is written to evoke, and celebrate, Lyons’ passion for the natural world, and specifically the wild outdoor spaces around Wellington. It was built around three main textures: a hushed, tremulous evocation of the native bush filled with birdsong; angular, airy percussive sections with (what the program called) “powerful plucks and snaps on the strings”; and more solid arco sections that often featured unisons diverging into Shostakovich-like dissonant harmonies. We visited each of these terrains several times, in various permutations, before vanishing once again into hushed space as the bird songs quieted.

It was back to Hungary for the last piece before the interval: György Ligeti’s String Quartet No. 1, nicknamed “Métamorphoses nocturnes.”  Helene Pohl, in her introductory comments, said the Quartet hear strong echoes of late Beethoven in the work, as well as the obvious influence of Bartók (whose works, however, Ligeti knew only insofar as they were approved for performance by the Stalinist government still in place when he was writing his first quartet; the works of other, more frankly avant-garde composers, such as Alban Berg, could not be heard at all, though Ligeti owned a score of Berg’s Lyric Suite and professed it as an influence on this work).  

If images of the natural world had provided the link from Haydn to Farr, the opening of the Ligeti hearkened back to Haydn via the motif of rising semitones. Here, however, far from the warmth of Haydn’s sunrise, chromatic scales — rising from a low C, beginning in the viola and gradually trickling into the cello and second violin — sounded spooky and, well, more Transylvanian (the composer was born in Transylvania in 1923) than plain old sylvanian. I found myself feeling glad that the scales were at least going up rather than down. From here, the first violin introduces the motif that Ligeti identified as the “concept” which “metamorphoses” rather than receiving conventional variations over the course of the piece, which is written as a single movement although distinct “sub-movements” are marked within it.  The texture ranged from delicate tremolo sections over melancholy harmonies to hyperactive fortissimo outbursts.  Though the overall effect was unconventional, formal conventions were not disregarded; the opening “Allegro grazioso” (with its unsettling rising scales) performed the traditional function of introducing the material to be developed; other sections recognizably included standard exercises such as a march, a waltz, a mournful adagio, etc. — but all knocked slightly askew.  


I thought the NZSQ played this superbly, with considerable humor, as well as energy and passion.  Both solo and ensemble playing were flawless. The music seemed to grow out of them more organically than the preceding two pieces (although I had no complaints about the preceding two pieces). From where I was sitting I happened to have a better-than-usual view of the inner voices, Monique Lapins on second violin and Gillian Ansell on viola; it was such a pleasure to watch them knit their lines together, as they were frequently called upon to do. All four players were fully involved in the music and obviously hearing and communicating with all three of their respective colleagues (at least, I am extrapolating in regard to Rolf Gjelsten, whose cello sounded terrific but of whom, from my vantage point, only a tidy haircut could be seen). Sometimes their playing and body language communicated deep empathy; sometimes, mutual hilarity (my notes single out “the bits where everyone is playing glissando and making each other laugh”: glissando was much to the fore, appearing in pizzicato and harmonic as well as arco sections). The “Tempo di Valse” section sounded irresistibly like a couple of Chaplinesque drunks trying to walk home (but was followed immediately by a ringing, urgent “subito prestissimo” lest we get too comfortable in our amusement). Perhaps under the influence of the “nature study” theme introduced by Haydn and Farr, I heard the alternations between prestissimo and allegro “giovale” in the last quarter of the piece as a tale revolving around angry bees; perhaps, those unsuccessfully hunted by Winnie-the-Pooh (who, under the name Micimackó, had been a beloved part of Hungarian children’s culture since 1935, so why not?).  My irreverence was, however, again stopped short by the sorrowful concluding Lento, tapering into silence (another aspect of performance at which the NZSQ excels: holding a silence for a decent length of time before relaxing for applause.)

This was a high note on which to adjourn for the interval (during which I was amused to be served hors d’oeuvres by shining lights of the Wellington Youth Orchestra, whose last concert I had recently reviewed).  On the programme for the second half was just one work, Dvořák’s  Tenth Quartet. This began tentatively but soon warmed up into the luscious and catchy folk-derived melodies for which Dvořák is known. Here as in the fourth movement of the opening Haydn, the folk dances felt less earthy than stylized; not so much an invitation to dance as an invitation to think about dancing. The opening polka is followed up in the second movement by a darker, more melancholic Andante (the “dumka” or folk lament, which is in turn contrasted by a lively Vivace section.  The third movement, labelled “Romanza,” is lyrical, yearning, and optimistic. Finally, the fourth movement returns to the stylized evocation of the dance hall with an exceptionally catchy and upbeat “skočná,” the fast-paced folk dance also used extensively by the composer in his Slavonic Dances. A meno mosso restatement of the main theme followed by a tiny, fast coda provided a final flourish to, as the programme notes suggested “send the listener on his merry way.” 

After such a programme, however, the listener proved not so eager to be sent. Applause continued until the Quartet returned to their designated performance spot in front of the windows to serve us “one more bonbon”: Rolf Gjelsten’s arrangement for string quartet of Janáček’s Znělka (“Sonnet”) in A Major, JW VII/1 (originally composed for four violins). The choice of a Czech composer for the encore was made in deference to Frederick Turnovsky’s original nationality, but also served as a fitting coda to a programme so firmly grounded in the Austro-Hungarian region (with even the deeply local Gareth Farr piece audibly connected by theme and technique to the “Hungarian” works placed before and after it). In all, I would have to say that not only the playing but the programme composition was superb; coherent, surprising, logical yet unexpected. The Haydn and Dvořák “standards” were meaningfully illuminated by juxtaposition with the less-known Farr and Ligeti works (and vice versa). While I may remain dubious about the terminology “Premium Concert Experience,” there is no doubt that this was, absolutely, a “premium” musical experience, and one I’m profoundly glad I had the opportunity to hear.

New Zealand String Quartet at Lower Hutt – three views of Beethoven

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets for the Ages

String Quartet in C Minor, Op. 18 No.4
String Quartet in E-flat Major, Op.74 “Harp”
String Quartet in C-sharp Minor. Op.131

The New Zealand String Quartet –
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins)
Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.Mark’s Church, Woburn, Lower Hutt

Thursday, 3rd June, 2021

I remember reading an interview many years ago with one of the great Beethoven interpreters of recent tines, Alfred Brendel, and warming to him all the more when he responded to a question regarding his “hobbies” by listing one of them as “collecting unintentional humour”. Brendel would doubtless have relished the unexpected “cyber-glitches” experienced by violinist Helene Pohl and ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten relating to their respective electronic page-turners’ charmingly (and perhaps appropriately connubial) interaction, just before the music got under way, Helene remarking of Rolf’s device at one point, “His machine keeps turning MY pages!”

Of course there was no ice needing to be broken, no frigid formality here –  the NZSQ’s characteristic “instant engagement” with whatever music the group performs invariably does the trick with audiences in a flash – nevertheless the momentary malfunctionings and the ensuing banter meant that we were this time even more-than-usually “primed” for enjoyment and wide-eared appreciation of what we were about to hear. And, such was the music’s expressive capacity and the players’ involvement with the sounds and their interaction, we were able to truly savour Rolf Gjelsten’s post-performance comments regarding Op.18 No. 4 as a satisfying retrospective of the music, the players having borne out to a tee his references to things such as Josef Haydn’s influence, and the younger composer’s avowed determination to match, if not outdo his great mentor’s achievement in this form.

Being in C minor, a key marking a significantly expressive world of feeling for Beethoven, the Op.18 No.4’s dark opening demeanour made its mark, while being cross-currented with mellowness in places, some especially lovely duetting between first and second violins a delight, and a graceful return to the opening throwing the darker-browed moments into bolder relief. I loved the expectation engendered by the playing of the development, the emotions unerringly terraced with crescendos of feeling, the ‘cello enjoying the same thematic material as the two violins in the exposition, the violin responding with a minor-key version of the same (“Anything you can do, etc…”), before a stepwise progression of the themes brought us to the recapitulation with great theatricality and presence, whose drama of “working out” the material left us humming at the end.

Unusually for the time, a scherzo-like allegretto followed, the daintiness of the fugato entries countenanced by the gruffness of the cello’s entries, the two “modes” playfully snapping at one another’s heels during the exposition. How intently the players made us listen to the development with its hushed, tongue-in-cheek gestures, pinning our ears back with the occasional sforzando and delighting us with moments of rustic gallantry augmenting the delicacies, the interactions having a quality here of such spontaneous enjoyment as giving an almost improvisatory feeling to the working-out.

There followed an amazing third movement! – a Menuetto almost to be “imagined” rather than realised, the chromatic writing enabling the music to appear to change from darkness to light and back to darkness almost within the space of a phrase, Beethoven drawing from Haydn’s example with fanciful exploratory impulses. The players wafted the Trio’s roulade-like figures skywards like flights of ecstasy, making the Menuetto’s return all the more “spooked”-sounding for its urgencies. The finale impishly suggested a minor-key version of Haydn’s “Gypsy” Piano Trio at the outset, but what most tickled the ear was the “give-and-take” treatment of the flowing contrasting theme’s voicing, and then the rapid-fire repeated-note versions of the opening, with first and second violins “juggling” the same theme to delightful effect. And the prestissimo ending here set high spirits against insouciant humour with real aplomb – splendid!

It was a pleasure to listen to Rolf (and, later in the concert, to Helene Pohl), talk about music the players obviously know so well and convey so much affinity with, Rolf placing the Op.18 work we had just listened to in the context of Beethoven’s three “periods” as a composer, and suggesting that here, in effect, would be three different people represented by the evening’s music – firstly the young, thrusting Beethoven, conscious of his influences and wanting to match and even surpass them in his own music, followed by a period during which he  grappled with debilitating deafness, striving to counter and overcome fate, hence the “heroic” aspect of works like the Fifth Symphony and the “Emperor” Concerto, one of which was the Op.74 “Harp” Quartet. Rolf indicated that Helene would later introduce the great Op.131 Quartet, one of those handful of works in which Beethoven seemed almost to transcend human existence in the creative sphere.

Innovative though certain aspects of the Op.18 quartets were, Beethoven’s “usual” quartet of string players (led by the wondrously-named Ignaz Schuppanzigh) seemed by all accounts equal to any technical difficulty in performance, though it was a different story with the later quartets, Schuppanzigh telling the composer that Op.59 (Razumovsky) and Op.74 (Harp) were “too unusual and challenging” to be accepted by the public. And, of course, Schuppanzigh was to dismiss the late quartets as impossible to play at first, eliciting the composer’s famously scathing remark concerning the former’s “miserable violin” (Schuppanzigh and his quartet subsequently “knuckled down” and played them anyway, revolutionising chamber music performing practice in the process, his quartet’s subscription concerts the first to be devoted entirely to instrumental music, and to focus on a single genre in a concert series).

Even to today’s sensibilities, the Poco Adagio  beginning of the Op.74 quartet seems to have an extraordinary and unpredictable expressive reach, the material inhabiting territories whose vistas keep their mystery intact through two sudden separate sforzando chords, as if saying to us “Are you listening?”. Then, with the allegro, the fully-formed composer comes into the light like a force of nature! – here, some remarkably flexible playing took us to the distinctive repeated-note motif that closed the exposition (the repeat eagerly plunging us back to the allegro’s beginning), before entering into new and unnerving realms – where were we going? Those seemingly-spontaneously-wrought modulations, stretching the allegro theme almost to breaking-point brought about a pizzicato-to-arco crescendo in which the players wrought expectations almost to fever-pitch – so exciting! The recapitulation seemed here to give us a kind of looking-glass view of the way we’d come, taking us back to the repeated-note motif, but then, amazingly, drifting into a hitherto unexplored state of consciousness, the players timing it all so deliciously, allowing the impulses to swell and grow before igniting as scurrying violin figures, excitable pizzicati and echoing figurations, eventually bursting out with the properly-conclusive repeated-note motif proclaiming the music’s true destination in (dare one say) almost orgasmic fashion, interactive and exhilarating!

Some beautiful violin-playing began the Adagio ma non troppo, with similarly-voiced support from the others, a hymn-like outpouring whose heartfelt warmth seemed to suddenly fall away and expose a loneliness within, a mood-shift Beethoven seemed to consider deeply, then turn into some kind of ritual, with each instrument adding its warmth and resonance, until, again, the depths were uncovered and we were made to feel the extent of the darkness – enthralling, sotto voce playing, here, then beautiful duetting between the violins, rich tones leavened by birdsong, and a return to the tragic theme, as if the composer was audibly “wrestling” with it all – such a “layered” outpouring of emotion, here so movingly felt and enacted.

From deep feeling to blood-pulsating activity! – the scherzo’s Presto burst out of the blocks, racing at what seemed like top speed, the sounds incredibly energised and varied in dynamic range! And what an explosive Trio section! – a jumble of conflicting emotions caught up in a vortex of ceaseless movement! The repeat asked for more and got it, as wildly and frenetically as before! I loved the fantastical, Berlioz-like arrivals at the sustained open-string-sounding note just before the scherzo’s returnings, the final reprise a ghostly, and fantastical experience, the muted tones as unnerving as the previously impetuous trajectories of the music had been.  From the mutterings grew up a carefree-sounding three-note figure strung together in a step-wise way, the seemingly-innocent chant-like theme giving rise to worlds of kaleidoscopic delight in the variations which made up the work’s finale, the ensemble bringing it all to life – a canonic-like echo-game, a viola-led serenade (the instrument most beautifully allowed to sing in its upper register) and a burst of running activity punctuated with angular off-beats, leading to a soulful, almost hymn-like  a section which gave way to a jolly jot-trot, one during which one could see and feel the players’ involvement with the fun of the accompaniments as much as with the rallying-call of the melody!

But then, what a feat of imagination was the composer’s fusion of varied impulse which led to the work’s conclusion – the repeated cello notes pulsating the music’s life-lines beneath the sotto voce voices of the other instruments, the blood-flow maintained by other voices as the excitement intensified, the opening three-note figure energised and the pulsations swelling (we were all on the edges of our mind-seats by this time!), until the “running” variation burst upon us once again, carrying all before it in triumph, and concluding with a droll “that’s that!” gesture at the end!

What it was about this particular quartet and its performance that has given rise to my writing all of the above, I don’t fully understand! – except that I had heard the NZSQ  players “unlock” the music with such heartfelt commitment as to freshly awaken for me the delight of unlooked-for rediscovery, a realisation that this work wasn’t merely a “prelude” to greater achievements in the genre by its composer, but a universe in itself, a “world in a grain of sand”. I briefly and unexpectedly spoke with Rolf Gjelsten in the foyer during the interval, but wouldn’t have made much sense to him in my somewhat dazed state following such a performance! And still we had, waiting for us in the concert’s second half, Op. 131!

Having fallen under the spell of Op.74, I simply couldn’t escape similar immersion in this later work,  reputedly the composer’s favourite of all of his string quartets. Helene Pohl talked with us not only about the uniqueness of the world inhabited by these late works, but also about Beethoven’s fascination with and study of Jewish themes at this time, illustrating the influences on this particular quartet with some examples from Kol Nidrei (a traditional Jewish declaration of “cleansing” before prayer), citing and illustrating their use by Beethoven in the Quartet, particularly in the sixth movement. What struck me anew at the music’s beginning was the indescribable sadness of the opening theme, played on the solo violin and continued in fugal form by all of the voices, taking the listener into realms of wonderment, everything further intensified by the instruments’ different timbres, each crescendo of intensity exquisitely realised. I was put in mind in places, also, of Tchaikovsky’s music at its most “stricken”, the players adding breadth of expression to the music’s depth, “leaning” almost pathetically into each chord at the end and allowing the resonances their full countenance….

Out of the gloom a number of impulses lit up, gently dancing, the 6/8 rhythm as spontaneously playful and angular as those similarly-wrought gestures in the composer’s Op.111 Piano Sonata’s Arietta – the brief allegro moderato movement, filled with improvisatory musings and flourishes seemed to proclaim something new and unchartered was afoot, the theme’s serenity and full-throatedness attesting to Beethoven’s unswerving focus and determination to put across “what the spirit told him”, the gentle march-like rhythms engaging violin and cello, then viola and cello, and finally all the instruments in a swinging unison, the “improvisatory” nature of it all captured both compositionally and interpretatively by the players, to enchanting effect. Here were the duetting lower strings daring one another to continue, the violins in ecstasy together, with their flights of fancy, and we in the audience spellbound throughout it all!

Too rich to fully document, though too significant to let pass, the remaining variations seemed to generate themselves from what had gone before in wholly alchemic ways, the rapt textures (again to my ears anticipating Tchaikovsky’s, and Borodin’s sound-worlds) giving way to a ritualised, chant-like treatment energised by the cello with a brusque figure that increasingly impinged, goading the first violin into a reply, while the volatile Allegretto stretched the material every which way, before withdrawing into enigmatic, though momentary, silence….

Immediately, the Presto was upon us, a repeated two-note figure tumbling through the ensemble and tossed backwards and forwards like a slippery ball – the ensemble had great fun with the pizzicato exchanges, which intensified with each repetition, the players’ control allowing them a real sense of abandonment, creating a kind of illusion of a capricious spirit directing the music to speak, exuberance jumbled up with mystery, the ponticello playing near the end properly sending the shivers up one’s spine! What a dramatic switch, then, to the Adagio quasi un poco andante, brief, but abyss-like in its potential for grief and despair! – and how unequivocally the succeeding  Allegro turned the focus around, away from despair to determination, the music “taking arms against a sea of troubles” with the utmost vehemence, the players here viscerally conveying the music’s conflict, courting the occasional tenderly-consoling sequence, but then building up further heads of steam. And the ending (a scalp-tingling “tierce de picardie”, or major-key ending to a piece in a minor key) featured emphatic C#MAJOR chords! – the perfect rebuff to the “sea of troubles!”

I walked out in a daze, afterwards – fortunately, my car seemed to know the way home that evening!














“….And we shall be changed” – the New Zealand String Quartet’s completion of its 2020 Beethoven journey

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
VISIONARY – Beethoven 250th Anniversary
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets:
Op.130 in B-flat Major – original version with the “Grosse Fugue” finale –
later published separately as Op.133 (1826)
Op.131 in C-sharp Minor (1826)

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Hunter Council Chamber, Hunter Building, Victoria University of Wellington,
Kelburn Parade, Wellington

Friday, 25th September, 2020

The listings in both the printed programme and the advance publicity suggested that we would get to hear BOTH of the “finales” of Beethoven’s String Quartet Op.130  at the culminating concert of the New Zealand String Quartet’s series presenting all of the composer’s String Quartets. TWO finales? Well, after the first performance of Op.130 in 1826, the general critical reaction regarding the original “Grosse Fugue” finale was one of disbelief and misunderstanding, so much so that the composer’s publisher urged him to compose an alternative conclusion for the work, and publish the “Grosse Fugue” as a separate piece, Op.133.

Tonight’s programme listed all six movements of the revised version (the new finale being an Allegro in B-flat), and then listed the Grosse Fugue as a separate, stand-alone item. But then, as ‘cellist Rolf Gjelsten proceeded with his spoken introduction regarding the delightful disparities in the makeup of Op.130, he ignored any descriptive mention of Beethoven’s alternative Allegro and straightaway spoke of the “Grosse Fugue” as if it was the “finale” the quartet was going to play – and so it proved, to my surprise and immense pleasure.

Some commentators have recently advocated that the most satisfactory solution when presenting this augmented assemblage is to play the original version immediately followed by the alternative finale – though one might consider such a plan as consigning the unfortunate Allegro very much to the realms of an “appendage”, this course at least follows the thread of compositional events and allows listeners to directly “experience” the disparity between what one might respectively call vision and pragmatism.

Out of curiosity I checked to see what the NZSQ had done when previously performing this work – and to my surprise discovered that it was not I. but my Middle C colleague Lindis Taylor who had been fortunate enough to gather these particular cherries, last time round! ….…in my defence I should say this all had happened (to my great astonishment) no less than eight years previously! – but I was at least able to ascertain that the Quartet indeed played the original version on that occasion as well!

I well remember upon first hearing this work over forty years previously, via one of the first recordings to present Op.130’s original version and jettison the alternative version of the finale entirely (the 1973 LaSalle Quartet on a Deutsche Grammophon LP), how remarkably “listenable” the work’s interior movements seemed to me to be, compared with those of some of the other late quartets I’d encountered at that time. It’s actually this accessibility that’s given rise to the most puzzlement among commentators, who have fallen back on descriptions of the work such as “an altogether strange miscellany of movements”, “a hotch-potch of character pieces”, and “an emulation of the baroque suite, with its contrasting dances”, all of which reactions have a validity of sorts without, it seems, managing to get to grips with the business of defining the indefinable.

Obviously, critical discernment has “walked the walk” regarding Beethoven’s late works over the duration – the composer’s own response to contemporary opinions – “they are not for you, but for a later age” – resonates more tellingly and fruitfully with ideas such as Rolf Gjelsten’s “essay in disruption” comment regarding the quartet as a whole, hinting at the subversion of association lurking beneath the bright-eyed exteriors of each of the pieces in question, and placing their assemblage into the category of a delicate balance between disparate elements. He also mentioned the context of comparison with the work’s very different concert companion this evening, Op.131, a piece whose structure set contrasting episodes into an organic whole, with transitions enabling the work to be presented in a continuous flow.

And so we began with Op.130, the sounds emerging easily and fluidly, as if beamed from a kaleidoscopic structure slowly revolving, until the crisp incursion of a dancing allegro, as taut as a well-controlled spring but with an impulsive kind of energy, quickened our blood and sharpened our senses, ready for the rest of the movement’s working-out of the two, quite separate premises, here  given the utmost character and focus, in the players’ intensity of attack and depth of perceived emotional response. A mercurial, furtively-scampering Presto followed, dissected mid-way by a madcap violin roller-coaster ride (with fearless playing from Helene Pohl!). Its closely-accompanying companion, an Andante con moto, cleared its throat and sang a tender song as time ticked away underneath, the lines seemingly at the mercy of spontaneous impulse, with everything almost surreal in its variety (heartfelt sighings next to mischievous pizzicati), the playing always alive to possibility – as conductor Otto Klemperer once said, “not the themes but their working-out, is the essential thing in Beethoven”.

I’ve always enjoyed the seemingly artless Alla danza Tedesca, but never quite registered the richness of the instrumental exchange to this degree before, and especially the tossing of the line between the instruments at one point near the conclusion, as each plays only one bar of the theme at its “turn” – a representation of sudden discontinuity and evanescence of feeling? The melody came back at the end, but a sense of something “dismantled” remained, perhaps for the Cavatina that followed to put to rights – here was the most serene ambience imaginable, the flowing, murmuring lines touching a couple of release=points, then delving into darker places in the “Beklemmt” (oppressed, anxious) sequence before returning to its former lyrical warmth.

After disconcerting the listener with a panoply of styles and sounds over the previous five movements, Beethoven then  proceeded to complement/renounce/obliterate all that had gone before in the quartet with the outlandish “Grosse Fugue”, a movement the composer subtitled “tantôt libre, tantôt recherchée” (sometimes free, sometimes studied) – as he had done with the forms used so far in the quartet, Beethoven here stretched and distorted commonly regarded “fugal” practice in a way that defies analysis except in the most specific terms – more impactful to instead quote Igor Stravinsky’s comment that it was “absolutely contemporary music that will be contemporary forever”. As previously mentioned, its abrupt appearance surprised some of us, due to the listing of the “replacement” allegro in the printed programme as the work’s sixth movement!

Once we had recovered from the shock of that opening unison flinging its challenge upwards and outwards, we set ourselves to make the journey with the players. As was the quartet’s custom all but the ‘cellist stood to play, something which I’d always thought gave the ensemble an “edge” in readily conveying that very important gestural component of the music, and particularly so with this composer’s work. Such a choreographic rendering of the music visually emphasised parameters of movement and stasis, energy and stillness, strength and grace, all of which were components of this extraordinary piece. Rather than a distraction, I’ve always found the group’s responsive physicality “added value” in my appreciation of how they interpret the notes – and in terms of involvement and commitment they never disappoint, and certainly didn’t here.

Of course, the fugue’s revolutionary explorations, exhortations, propositions and implications made the perfect foil for the work the composer himself indicated was his ”favourite” of all his quartets, the C-sharp Minor Op.131, which we heard after the interval. Completed in 1826, it was one of a trio of works which began with the Op.132 “Heiliger Dankgesang” quartet (published out of order), and continued with Op 130 and its “Grosse Fugue” finale, before this one, Op.131, rounded off the group. Beethoven’s very last compositions were one further String Quartet (Op.135) and the aforementioned single “Allegro” movement written for Op.130.

Cast in seven movements which were individually numbered in the score but intended to be played without a break, the first movement of Op.131 was a slowly-evolving fugue described by various commentators in term such as “most melancholy”, “most moving”. “superhuman” and as having “extraordinary profundity”. The NZSQ players caught a distinctive expressive quality with their lines, individual sounds at once warm and spare, and evolving constantly like light, the upper reaches having a radiance as well as an occasional edge, the lower tones sometimes warm, sometimes grainy, refusing to “settle” on a constant state, as if delineating a process rather than a product. The mood brightened with the D-major Allegro molto vivace, the players gently “dancing” the gregarious folk-like theme  until a violin flourish announced the fourth movement, a set of variations marked Andante (ma non troppo e molto expressivo)!

The violins charmingly shared the opening theme, setting the tone of spontaneous creation as the viola joined in, the subsequent episodes appearing wind-blown at times, delivered with a wry grin and a raised eyebrow at others – the players tossed the melody about, their tones engagingly varied, ever leading the ear on, viola and cello teasingly exchanging philosophies, leading the music upwards towards the violins, who at one stage punctuated the swaying rhythms with startling pizzicato notes – but how beguiling were those upwardly gliding amalgams of thirds and solo lines whose highest note transfixed the ensemble’s attention, and brought forth repeated clusters of entranced luminosity! – receding then into chant-like murmurings as the cello grumbled its approval. It was music that beguiled our senses and transported our imaginations to realms seldom visited.

And then, as happened with the concluding moments of the titanic Grosse Fugue, the composer’s sense of fun suddenly energised the ethereal realms, even if the individual flourishes made by each instrument weren’t uniformly note-perfect in some instances – the ensuing accelerandi, and the almost fairground-like processionals brought us back in touch with terra firma via a couple of piquant landing-points. They were mere symbolic gestures, as the cello lost no time in calling us to order for the scherzo!

This had tremendous energy and drive, the ebb and flow nicely controlled without the rhythms being over-regimented – a mixture of precision and flexible spontaneity, with great, stinging pizzicato notes at the transitions, and an ear-catching dynamic variation of the penultimate statement of the main theme – almost like a sotto-voce whisper, and terribly conspiratorial-sounding! – it was almost a Monty Python “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!” moment when the sequence returned at the end! The sequences were then broken up into fragments, and the momentums curtailed, the attentions suddenly turned in a new direction, by way of an Adagio quasi un poco andante! One might have thought this would blossom into  another full-blooded slow movement, but we got instead a couple of minutes of exquisitely-voiced expressions of the utmost melancholy and sorrow, something that was then as peremptorily cast aside as it was deeply-felt in sound and concentrated effort!

With the music’s return to C-sharp minor at the finale’s beginning, we were in tonal terms returned by the composer to where we came from – and the playing here vigorously and unequivocally put across the composer’s message telling us to stand steadfast and hold our own, defying our troubles and sorrows.  Not only did the finale share the key of the opening movement but its second subject presented a sterner, more assertive “next-of-kin” thematic version of the work’s opening fugal melody,. The “quick march” of the dotted rhythm shared the argument with flowing solos from the violin and viola, and sequences of running passages without any let-up in the tempo. And the players managed the music’s “resolution” towards C-sharp major at the end with a beautifully-detailed sense of inevitably that afterwards lingered in the mind all the more naturally and profoundly – as would any like kind of journey encompassing similarly vast territories…….

New Zealand String Quartet triumphantly reaches the heights of Beethoven’s Late Quartets

Beethoven string quartets, Concert No 5

Opus 135 in F; Opus 130: Finale in B flat; Opus 132 in A minor

New Zealand String Quartet: Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (cello)

St Peter’s Village Hall, Paekakariki

Wednesday 23 September 7:30pm

Violist Gillian Ansell opened the concert with cheerful and interesting remarks about the significance of Beethoven’s last quartets, written well after the last piano sonatas, the Missa Solemnis, the Choral Symphony, and the Diabelli Variations.

Quartet in F, Opus 135
This concert included the last that he wrote, Op 135, and the second, written for his patron Prince Galitzin, Op 132 which contains the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang. In between was the last movement of Op 130, which Beethoven had written after being asked to discard his original last movement and to replace it. The original movement was published separately as the Gross Fuge, Op 133. Op 130 was to be played in the final concert, with that original ‘great fugue’ as its final movement, a practice that I imagine is not very frequent.

While it is common to consider the four movement quartets, Op 127 and Op 135 as generally more conventional than the other three which have more movements, that is only an observation that can be applied to Beethoven. All are incomparable with any string quartets written before or, I believe, after.

So Gillian’s comments suggesting a lightness of spirit can apply somewhat to the other four late quartets. However, considering the state of Beethoven’s health, the singularly rich and humane spirit of the first movement of Opus 135 is astonishing. The players, with their capacity to capture the richness of the Allegretto and even more remarkably, the joyous Vivace that followed, is impossible to reconcile with Beethoven’s state of health and closeness to death (only five months later). The real profundity of musical inspiration arrives with the deeply contemplative Lento assai, third movement, in five flats (D flat major), a fairly remote key. Their playing was a model of restraint and simplicity, with a profundity that’s without self-pity.  The last movement is famous for the inserted words that relate to an argument Beethoven had with a court official about subscription costs that Beethoven expected to be paid. Beethoven declared: Es muss sein, ‘it must be’. The music is laden with heavy bow strokes as well as a distinctive comic touch.

The substituted Finale of Opus 130
Monique Lapins, second violin, spoke articulately about the next piece, the Finale of Op 130, described above. It’s obviously very different from the Grosse Fuge that it replaced, and perhaps doesn’t justify a stand-alone performance. It opens with a series of cheerful downward passages and a charming tune; it’s remarkable in that it’s the very last music that Beethoven wrote – a month or so after Op 135 and just four months before his death. So the substitute finale, in its singularly positive spirit, is hard to believe; though a lightness is there, it’s not hard to hear Beethoven’s defiant determination to sustain his spirit till the end.

Op 130, with its original finale, the Great Fugue, was to be played in the sixth and last concert.

Opus 132, the last for Prince Galitzin
Op 132 was the third and last of the quartets that Beethoven composed for Prince Galitzin, and its middle movement makes it one of the remarkable quartets. This time, the work was the subject of an illuminating commentary from Rolf Gjelsten. It opened quietly, inspiring a stilled and rapt anticipation; but the first movement’s Allegro soon generates a more normal emotion and through repeated changes of mood, holds the attention. It is a very remarkable movement which has attracted a great deal of scholarly analysis. Yet even repeated hearings never seem to exhaust its mysteries; in fact the more one listens and reads analytical studies, the more one has to accept its unorthodox complexity. Its ten minutes is never enough time to assimilate its musical character; nor do repeated hearings.

Unconventionally, the second movement is a minuet and trio and it’s in A major instead of the opening key of A minor: and its shape created more repetition of the musical ideas. Superficially the second movement is conventional, but its very repetition and its uncanny departures from the expected, like the heavy thrusting of the cello half way through, insist on its uniqueness.

The middle movement, the remarkable Heiliger Dankgesang, is about a quarter hour long, and the extreme slowness – molto adagio – makes its leisureliness inevitable, yet never seeming excessive. Certainly, the quartet’s performance generated an extraordinary, mysterious spirit, at times, while the intervening Andante passages reawakened a slightly more normal musical awareness. The four players created a spell-binding intensity that could only be described as uniquely sublime.

The last two movements are rather more ‘normal’. The 4th, Alla Marcia – Piu allegro – attacca, is a dance-like episode that doesn’t fail to demonstrate the quartet’s persistently remarkable character. Though nothing is as unexpected (to those who didn’t know the work) as the half-minute of tumbling, semi-chaotic sounds, Piu allegro, that finish the movement, and could almost be heard as the start of the last movement, Allegro appassionato, triple time. Though the last movement would be heard as a remarkable episode in almost any other quartet, in comparison to the first and third movements it is almost conventional.

No doubt there are always listeners who look for details and stylistic aspects to find fault with, but we happen to have, in Wellington, a quartet that has all the musical skills and comprehension needed to illuminate what even the most hypercritical listeners expect and find fulfilling. This was a wonderful performance.


Beethoven’s creative “quartet-journey” superbly delineated by the NZSQ at St.John’s in the City, Wellington

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
UNIVERSAL – Beethoven 250th Anniversary
BEETHOVEN – String Quartets :
Op. 18 No. 6 in B-flat Major(1801)
Op.95 in F Minor “Serioso” (1814)
Op.127 in E-flat Major (1825)

The New Zealand String Quartet
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins) / Gillian Ansell (viola) / Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

St.John’s in the City Presbyterian Church
Willis St., Wellington

Saturday 19th September 2020

Continuing its “tour” of Wellington venues by way of bringing to us all of Beethoven’s String Quartets during his 250th anniversary year, the New Zealand String Quartet gave the latest instalment of its traversal in the austerely beautiful Willis St. Church of St.John’s in the City. Something about the venue suited the music on this occasion even more than usual, to my mind, the refinement and directness of certain of Beethoven’s sequences mirroring the church’s relatively undecorated aspect, and other, more warm and humanly discursive episodes seeming in accord with the magnificent stained-glass biblical triptych on the rear wall of the nave facing the altar. It was a stimulating and atmospheric space in which to experience this deeply-felt and richly-wrought music, all the more so in performances by the Quartet whose commitment and execution seemed to almost intuitively penetrate to its real substance.

Today’s musical journey began with the composer having reached a kind of apex with the last of his six Op.18 quartets (though there seems to be disagreement as to whether this is in fact the sixth of the set in order of composition, some accounts claiming it to be the fifth), in B-flat Major, completed in 1800 and published the following year. Having accepted the challenge of writing quartets and thus “competing” with his idols Mozart and Haydn, the young Beethoven in the course of writing these works seemed to “re-invent himself” as a composer, having already made his mark as a performer. And in the process of doing so he sought to escape from those same influences that had at first inspired him to achieve something new – of all the Op.18 quartets this is the one that most clearly indicates a “new way forward”. Driven partly by the desperation of knowing that he was going deaf and that his days as a performer were numbered, and partly by his desire to overcome these difficulties and “conquer through music”, he produced a work which both saluted and farewelled each of his great exemplars, and strode forth into an age he was to make his own.

A jaunty country walk began the opening movement, Haydn-like in its al fresco, bucolic quality, texturally varied in its sharing of the thematic material, and dynamic in its combination of middle-voice trajectories and dovetailed linear thrusts from all the instruments. I was swept along by the performance’s initial brio, and found myself enjoying the digging-in with the players’ efforts by way of relishing the development’s major-minor alternations and lovely duetting sequences, and the occasionally madcapped moment in the otherwise “straightforward” (as the programme note commented) recapitulation – I did enjoy the players’ revisiting of the opening “laughter holding both his sides” gesture just before the movement’s end. The slow movement trod a graceful Mozartean measure at the outset, the mood of the music then abruptly sombre and Shakespearean, denoting a change in thinking, in fortune, in awareness. However, the opening’s return found the violin’s melody richly and engagingly decorated by the others, and even a brief return of the “Ghost” music was but a “blip” on the horizons, the concluding phrases farewelled with graceful pizzicati.

What a tour de force here was the syncopated scherzo, something of a great-uncle to the yet-unborn Op.135 Scherzo, the players tossing off the phrases with the utmost nonchalance, the first violin even finding all the time in the world to comment on the “chaos of delight” with an extended trill! Just as vertiginous was the Trio, the rapid scamperings interrupted by a droll minor-key version of the previous roller-coaster ride, before starting off again! – a fabulous performance!  And then the players made the most of the finale, the beginning’s serene chordings torpedoed by strident harmonies, again reminiscent of the Op.135 Quartet’s finale, the composer’s marking of the score “La Malinconia” given resonance – when suddenly there was a babbling brook of a tune gaily and garrulously skipping ahead of us and leading us on, beautifully energised, making the return to the “La Malinconia” mood all the more unexpected, and its eventual dismissal all the more hair-raising when the players at the end turned the babbling brook into a torrent, one carrying off everything in its wake!

Beethoven himself regarded the next work on today’s programme (Op.95 in F Minor) as “special”, and was even somewhat protective towards it, stating in a letter to a friend that the quartet was “for connoisseurs, and not to be played in public”. His own name for the work, “Serioso”, appears in the tempo markings for the third movement, but it could equally apply to the whole quartet – it sounds rigorous, direct, concentrated and challenging, and the NZSQ delivered its four movements as such. The work’s famous opening, not unlike the Fifth Symphony’s in effect, began a kind of “chain reaction” of outbursts, followed by considerations, and then more outbursts, a tightly-knit mini-drama with an abruptly-muted ending. The ‘cello began the second movement in stepwise fashion, the other instruments sighing over the music’s halting progress. I was drawn into the players’ realisation of a ghostly, phantom-like fugue, one which seemed to endlessly descend in MC Escher-like fashion, and continue the process until rescued and led back into the light by the violin, the players rhapsodising on the movement’s theme most beguilingly.

Out of an unresolved cadence burst the scherzo – again, a terse figure at the outset, its dotted rhythm dominating the trajectories, here given enormous thrust by the players, most engaging and involving! The instruments delivered the all-pervading figure in pairs, the violins alternating with the pair of lower strings, hurling their voices across the spaces for dramatic effect – I loved the accelerating oompah-effect whenever all four instruments drove each sequence downwards and “bounced” upwards again! In the midst of the tumult was a lullaby, the players tossing their phrases gently from one to another, the brief dream scattered by the scherzo’s reappearance!  How warily the players then began the finale, feeling their way at the outset, and sighing with mortification in a manner that suggested a full-scale lament was brewing – when suddenly the music “felt” its true purpose and drove forwards, the musicians imbuing us with a similar surge of expectation! Somewhat like a highly-charged cradle-song, the lines raced forwards, pausing for breath, only to redouble their energies with headlong scamperings that suggested an amalgam of relief and exhilaration – or was that just US feeling like that?

Rolf Gjelsten and Monique Lapins having respectively “opened up” for us something of the world of each of the first-half’s quartets earlier, Helene Pohl then similarly talked about the context of the Op.127 quartet which was to follow – a world of inward sound and light unlike anything we had heard previously. It was a work in the “heroic” key of E-flat but the “triumph” of such a gesture was interlaced with questions posed by the composer regarding the beyond and its mysteries. With this in mind we settled into the sounds from those first richly-wrought chords, as ready as we could ever be for whatever realms awaited.

We felt immediately drawn in, the sounds having a “shared” quality, emphasised by the chords’ more brightly-lit repetition, the music taking its time through sequenced passages, the players bringing out various individual lines and exchanges (I particularly enjoyed violist Gillian Ansell’s “smoky” tones in some lyrical passagework towards the movement’s end). The Adagio’s opening was scarcely breathed (compared by the writer of the excellent programme notes to the serene aspect of the Benedictus from the Missa Solemnis written a few years earlier), the playing as tender and “charged” as one could wish for, the first variation elaborating the lines as naturally as the opening-up of a sprinking of flowers in the sunlight, and the ensuing jog-trot sequence animating the impulses to delicious choreographic effect on the part of the musicians (with violinist Monique Lapins, whom I was sitting directly opposite to, particularly terpsichordean in her movements!), and not unlike Schoenberg’s cabaret-like “Die eiserne Brigade” music! – from this, the mood returned to the opening, the players’ voicings then suddenly to die for, imbuing the sounds with pure emotion! The variations continued their ebb and flow between pairs of instruments, until reaching a point where the music seems to denote the movement of time itself, or else a human heartbeat, something proclaiming the essence of our existence.

A few pizzicato “plucks” and the players were off astride the Scherzo, holding onto the music’s obsessively dotted rhythms on their discursive journeyings, light-as-feather manoeuverings alternating with robust “bouncings” – the Trio seemed here to suddenly fall out of the sky, pick itself up and join hands with all of us for a “Round Dance”, then disappear as quickly as it arrived (though making a brief reappearance at the movement’s end). A “call to arms” brought the finale’s flowing gait into play, a busy, chatty tune that contrasted markedly with the second theme, strong and abrupt and brooking no nonsense! The “working out” used all of these elements, a coming-together which quartet leader Helene Pohl had earlier characterised as a kind of “party”! – but what a gorgeous effect the musicians created with their deliciously “swooning” lead-in to this, the work’s “epilogue”, a grand, almost ceremonial, summation of what had gone before, concluded with suitably majestic chordings!

Berlioz wrote in 1830 on hearing a rehearsal of this quartet in Paris, “God willed that there should be a man as great as Beethoven, and that we should be allowed to contemplate him” – to which sentiments one here today could add that of gratitude to the New Zealand String Quartet for bringing to us such vibrant performances of his works!




New Zealand String Quartet’s second Beethoven 250th Anniversary concert

The New Zealand String Quartet presents:
BEETHOVEN 2020 – NZSQ National Tour
Programme Two –  INNOVATOR

String Quartets – Op.18 No. 2, in G Major (1801)
Op. 74 in E-flat Major “Harp” (1809)
Op.59 No.2, in E Minor “Razumovsky” (1808)

New Zealand String Quartet –
Helene Pohl, Monique Lapins (violins), Gillian Ansell (viola), Rolf Gjelsten (‘cello)

Seatoun Village Hall and St.Christopher’s Church, Wellington

Sunday, 13th September, 2020

Though it doesn’t seem to me all that long ago that the NZSQ (well, THREE of the members of the present quartet!) were previously “wowing” us with their brilliant, uniquely engaging interpretations of Beethoven’s most significant and searching set of works, I suddenly felt, amidst the frisson of excitement and intoxication which rippled through the audience at Seatoun’s St.Christopher’s Church during Sunday’s concert, as if we had all actually been covertly harbouring a desperate need for a fresh “Beethoven update” from these players! – and, of course, what better occasion than a 250th birthday year for the composer in question in which to undertake (and celebrate!) such a renewal?

These works are, of course, iconic representations of a whole genre of music, and as such well-known to audiences everywhere – but as with the NZSQ’s previous traversal of the same music (far longer ago, incidentally, than I’d remembered), it seemed as if we were here being invited by the players to “reimagine” these sound-worlds as pertaining to the “here and now”, just as one would respond to an old friend whose by-now familiar aspects, expressions and attitudes had vigorously and healthily moved with the times! So the immediacy of contact established at the concert’s outset allowed these familiarities to lead us directly towards a freshly-minted process of rediscovery, one of the ensemble’s by-now established trademarks,.

The quartet’s strategy in grouping certain individual works together over the concert series seems to be one of thoughtfully illustrating stages in the composer’s creative process which suggest awareness, discovery and fruition. While I’m not one for being drawn to music events on the strength of their often adopting as pulicity glib (and in some cases ridiculously banal) “titles” – the recent labelling of conductor Gemma New’s NZSO concert as “Passion” I thought a particularly vacuous example of “event-speak”, for instance! – I could easily cope with the Quartet’s somewhat more apposite use of the title “Innovator” for this particular trio of works, given that, in most cases with Beethoven, his works were almost constantly breaking new ground, with even his “throwback” works such as the Eighth Symphony, the Op.110 Piano Sonata and the Op.135 String Quartet pouring new life into older forms.

Fortunately, with this group any such business is soon relegated to relative insignificance when set against the actual concert experience – one of the joys of encountering these musicians thus is listening to their freshly-conceived and invariably thoughtful remarks concerning the music they’re about to play – in this case, Helene Pohl, Rolf Gjelsten and Monique Lapins in turn gave us a number of at once spontaneous-sounding and penetrating insights into the music and its context in the composer’s life at the time of each separate work’s creation – I liked also their “personalising” in each case of the effect of actually performing the works, giving us a somewhat more visceral account of what coming to grips with this music actually meant for the performer – it couldn’t help but enhance our own involvement no end in the music-making!

First up was Beethoven’s Op.18 No.2 in G Major, one of a set of six quartets  published in 1801, but whose composition dates are at variance with the opus numberings – so this G major work was actually the third to be composed. The set was commissioned by the Bohemian Prince Lobkowitz, who became the dedicatee (it was at Lobkowitz’s palace that the “Eroica” Symphony, also dedicated to him, received its first performance, the Prince subsequently becoming a patron of the composer in the form of a pension paid up to Beethoven’s death). Helene Pohl in her introduction emphasised the composer’s awareness of his hearing’s deterioration at the time of writing these works, and of the devastation it would have caused him (as reflected in letters to his friend, Karl Amenda, such as one dated July 1st – “….For two years I have avoided almost all social gatherings because it is impossible for me to say to people “I am deaf!”…..if I belonged to any other profession it would be easier, but in my profession it is a frightful state…..”

No such angst seemed to trouble the music at first, the quartet’s playing of the work’s opening rather like an involuntary sigh, leading to an awakening and a sequence of fully fledged stretches in the impulse’s direction. It was a “now, the day can begin” kind of ritual, leading to a poised, almost courtly second subject whose barely contained sense of fun bubbled up and over with the first violin’s mischievously off-the -beat repeated note-soundings, rounded off by a “well, that’s that!” D major phrase – except that, after the opening’s repeat, that same rounding-off phrase was then reiterated in the minor, and we soon found ourselves in the company of what seemed like a ghostly conglomeration, a world of eerily floated thoughts wondering how it was that everything had gotten so gloomy! And then, what a splendidly assertive arousal it was, from “cello and viola, urging a whole-hearted return to the opening theme, the “sigh” now a full-blooded statement of resolve, and the stirring commitment to the cause unassailable, the occasional minor-key hesitation aside – came the movement’s coda, however, and to our surprise ‘cello and viola were suddenly sounding a sober note of circumspection, hearkening back to those earlier spectral lines, the movement thus concluding “not with a bang, but with a whimper”…..

Had one but world enough and time, of course, one could relive the variegated pleasures of the entire concert thus, except that this is a mere review, not a performance! But such was the focus and concentration of these players, their music-making readily gave rise to thoughts and feelings which one found oneself throwing down on note-paper in frenzied, scarcely intelligible form, carried away with the up-front engagement of it all! The above account I hope gives some idea of the degree to which the musicians were able to make Beethoven’s music speak throughout the entire concert, their words being a mere adjunct to the business of investing the notes with life. The slow movement’s hymn-like opening allowed the first violin to decorate its line over sonorous supporting voicings, the phrasings beautifully terraced, as if preparing for the most soulful of dissertations – how disconcerting to suddenly have a kind of “party” breaking out, a garrulous affair with all voices having their say! Just as peremptorily the solemn mood was returned, the violin’s decorations this time echoed (almost “ghosted”) by the ‘cello, to richly-wrought effect. The sprightly Haydnesque Menuetto cast no shadows, either with its leaping opening figure (tossed about with great abandonment by the players) or its deceptively artless-sounding Trio, whose rising four-note motif gave rise to all kinds of adornments  from all the instruments; while the finale, set in motion by the ‘cello, allowed only one or two brief moments, by turns introspective and dark-browed, to cloud the music’s high spirits, the players carrying all before them with truly infectious energies.

Of course, both of the quartets remaining in the concert were conceived very much under the “cloud” of Beethoven’s by then obviously failing hearing, though Rolf Gjelsten in his spoken introduction to the first-played of these, the “Harp” Quartet No.10 in E-flat Major, Op.74, outlined for us some of the outside events, favourable and otherwise, which also played their part in “colouring” the composer’s world at the time. He invited us to imagine for ourselves the potential effect of these happenings  – to name but two highly-contrasted ones, the granting of an annuity to the composer for life by a group of Viennese nobles, and the war between France and Austria (Beethoven’s well-known “Les Adieux” Piano Sonata, also in A-flat, dated from the same time as his “Harp” Quartet, and shared some of the same characteristics).

Nicknamed “Harp” (by Beethoven’s publisher) because of the quartet’s frequent use of pizzicato in the first movement, the work with its opening “yearning” quality was beautifully articulated from the outset by the players, riding the top of a crescendo into the confidently stated three-note motif which the famous pizzicato notes replicated with great vigour, both here, and more elaborately in the later development sequence. I loved how the exhilarating “tow” of the first violin’s incredibly gutsy running figurations carried us irresistibly along to the “motto” theme’s statement which so dominated this movement. The Serenade-like second movement generated plenty of rapt concentration, with the violin at one point rivalling the viola in deep-throated expressiveness, though reclaiming its lighter voice before the movement’s end. But, after this, what an almost frightening contrast the scherzo’s opening made! And with what relentless drive did the musicians plunge into both the repeat of the opening and the “whirling dervish “ Trio! Such vertiginous energy! But then, I was riveted by those scalp-prickling, spectral tones the players took on over the final stretches of the ride, holding us in thrall! – at the end of it by rights the abyss should have been waiting to receive us all! – simply astonishing!

Of course, the said abyss was an illusion,  the spectral aspect gradually receding into the strains of a deceptively innocuous-sounding set of variations,  among them a lovely solo from the viola played cheek-by jowl with rumbustious “jolly hockey-sticks” enthusiasm by the ensemble, the music continuing to alternate similarly contrasting moods to the point where a precipitous slide became a mini-stampede of tumbling old-fashioned excitement, with its satisfied honour upheld by two quietly concluding chords!

We “used well the Interval”, digesting what we had heard, and discussing our thoughts with our “distanced” neighbours, by way of preparing for the concert’s final work, the Op.59 No. 2 Quartet in E Minor, here introduced by Monique Lapins, who re-emphasised the on-going impact upon Beethoven’s life and work of his hearing loss, and his determination (expressed by the earlier Heiligenstadt Testament, written to his brothers but discovered only after the composer’s death in 1828) to fulfil all that he felt called upon to produce. She drew parallels between the music for the “Eroica” Symphony (with its famous opening chords) and similar gestures (minor-key versions) in the quartet, and then got her fellow-players to illustrate the “Russian theme” given to Beethoven by Count Razumovsky and used by the composer in the work’s Allegretto movement (a theme which also occurs in Musorgsky’s opera “Boris Godunov”).

Thus primed, we were plunged into the maelstrom of trenchant attack, fiery exchange and brooding resonance of the E Minor Quartet’s first movement, the drama of confrontation and conflict all too palpable, the music driven excitingly, almost scarily fiercely by the players, the occasional repetitions of the searing opening chords holding us in thrall, and the dynamic vortex-like passages  drawing us into what seemed like the clamour of creation amidst burgeoning fire and tumult! The second movement’s long-breathed utterances, long-equated with Carl Czerny’s assertion  that Beethoven was evoking “the music of the spheres” in this music, felt to me in this performance to speak of ageless things, akin to a child’s feelings towards people and places that seemed “forever”, punctuated by specific fascinations whose essence was “felt” rather than comprehended – the violin’s ascending sequences, for example, or the ensemble’s two extraordinary chordal utterances, both breathcatching moments…..

But what can one say about the two final acts of the drama that the music itself doesn’t render superfluous? – and especially when delivered  in performance as “organically” as here, by these players! – after the almost Schumannesque insistence of the Allegretto’s determined “dancing with a crutch” aspect, I found the playful festivity of the “Russian” tune a welcome infusion of colour and variety, if almost tipping over into clangour In places! And (we were warned beforehand, but didn’t care!) the tensions built up by the finale’s driving dotted rhythms didn’t let up for a moment, the musicians’ surge of energy at the coda bringing our hearts into our mouths at the abandonment of it all! If music-making was about anything, we felt we understood and relished something of what it was, at that moment! Bravo, NZSQ!






Beethoven 250th anniversary: first concert from New Zealand String Quartet

Beethoven: First concert of the complete string quartets

String Quartets:  Opus 18, No. 3 in D; Opus 18, No. 1 in F; Opus 59 ‘Razumovsky’, No. 1 in F

St Andrew’s on The Terrace

Friday 11 September, 7:30 pm

This was the first of six concerts this month of all 17 of Beethoven’s string quartets (17 includes the Grosse Fuge, the original last movement of Op 130). They are being played in largely chronological order of publication, modified a bit to help in the appreciation of Beethoven’s developing genius: for example, here were the first two quartets alongside the first of the Op 59 (Razumovsky) group. While in the fourth concert, we will hear representatives from all three periods.

It would have been interesting for the programme notes to have mentioned the quartet’s earlier explorations of Beethoven’s quartets. My memory is of a complete series round about 2000. More easy to identify (in Middle C’s archive) have been performances of some of them in 2012, including all three of the Razumovsky quartets. But surely NZSQ have played the Op 59 quartets since then? Remarkably, I heard this one, Op 59 no 1, in a fine performance by the Aroha Quartet at Lower Hutt a few days ago!

I find it curious that the sort of rather obscure scholarship regarding the order, not merely of publication, but when Beethoven is believed to have simply ‘completed it to his satisfaction’ is such common knowledge. The equivalent knowledge of the chronology and revisions and printings in quarto format of Shakespeare’s plays, might be familiar to graduate students of English literature, but hardly to the great majority of theatre-goers.

Op 18 No 3 
So we began with Op 18 No 3, at once announcing the kind of psychological subtleties that our quartet had familiarised themselves with and were delivering the famous rising seventh at the beginning, expressing such sensitivity, delicacy and expectancy for the secrets to be uncovered over the next half hour. Fluctuating tempi and dynamics prepare you for the arrival of the true Allegro; the fleeting motifs might seemed to be tossed off but their playing remained always clearly purposeful and deliberate.  The second movement shifts from D to the key of B flat major, a somewhat remote key, almost hinting at the arrival of the minor mode. And there was an exploratory feeling in the quartet’s playing, every phrase carefully enunciated, quite deeply felt and purposed.

Further departures from the normal come with the third movement: not a conventional Minuet though in triple time, and with contrasting sections that fell back from D major to D minor. Their playing of the third movement seemed careful not to undermine the emotional character of either the preceding Andante, or the following optimistic, almost joyous Presto that followed. It was almost frenzied in this performance, but it never suffered from blurring or lack of precision. It was relentless with only brief rallentandi or perhaps more accurately ritardandi,

To play the first quartet straight after the end of the third, had the effect of drawing attention to the emotional difference between the two keys, a minor third apart (and, not having perfect pitch I don’t mean any intrinsic character that those claiming perfect pitch recognise in different keys: it’s just the pitch difference that has an emotional impact). This particular contrast made the F major piece, moving up by a minor third, seem more sombre, perhaps even with a touch of tentativeness.

Op 18 No 1
So the character of No 1 seems more serious and dramatic, though the first movement is marked Allegro con brio which did in fact characterise it. But I felt it was a ‘brio’ of a distinctly serious kind. That might have led to my hearing contrasts between the roles and the playing of each instrument that seemed more evident in No 3; for some reason I found myself paying more attention to those aspects in the second work. As often, the differences in tone and mood between the two violins, part no doubt, the instrument, part the personality differences between players, are always interesting to contemplate and to enjoy.

If the first movement is quite long, the second movement is even more protracted (nearly ten minutes) graced with a more deliberate title than usual: Adagio affettuoso ed appassionato. Such details always tilt one’s expectation to read particular qualities into a performance. It’s in a rather slow triple time, 9/8, meaning nine quavers to the bar. The programme note records thoughts allegedly exchanged between Beethoven and a tutor, one Karl Amenda, who was employed by Beethoven’s patron at the time and dedicatee of the set of quartets, Prince Franz Josef Maximilian von Lobkowitz. Beethoven is recorded saying that he thought of the second movement as in the burial vault scene of Romeo and Juliet. Such an observation tends to colour what one hears.

The third movement is a normal Scherzo, sprightly through its repeated dotted rhythms and staccato octave leaps. Only about three minutes long, it is enough dramatically to change the listener’s view of the whole quartet that is reinforced by the scampering finale, a plain Allegro in 2/4 time dominated by semi-quavers in triplets. Though Beethoven gives very balanced roles to all four instruments in his quartets, viola and cello often seemed more prominent and the vivid playing by Gillian Ansell and Rolf Gjelsten continued to command attention.

Op 59 (Razumovsky), No 1
A link with Beethoven’s next ‘period’ came with the first of the three quartets of Op 59, written for Count Razumovsky, Russian ambassador to Austria (by the way, it’s Разумовский in the Cyrillic alphabet: ‘з’ is ‘z’, not ‘s’). Its contrast with the two Op 18 quartets lies not so much in their melodic character as in the adventurousness of harmonies that quite soon seem to lose sight of the original key as they explore expanding tonalities quietly, secretively. And the cello again seemed to have a conspicuous role in this.

The second movement, which might seem a substitute for a Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace e sempre scherzando, finds its emotional contrast through its move to the subdominant key of B flat, which seems to calm the vivace and scherzo-ish character. The playing seemed to emphasise the ritual thematic development process, though the persistent treatment of the themes was a constant delight, as if Beethoven was teasing us into recognising that he was obeying the rules.

The slow movement, Adagio molto e mesto, is in F minor, which created a more serious, even sorrowful (‘mesto’ means sad) tone and is indeed at the heart of the quartet. It offered all players opportunities for some profoundly felt elegiac passages; it lasts around 12 minutes. It felt to me, as I’m sure Beethoven intended, to hold its audience transfixed, through non-ostentatious but ever-changing musical patterns and modulations. Even though there are no conspicuously flamboyant passages, here it was the seriousness and poignancy of the playing by each of the four musicians that impressed so deeply. The movement’s conclusion is a remarkable demonstration of Beethoven’s ability to shift the mood, subtly, teasingly, and at astonishing length, to introduce us without a break to the very different character of the last movement. In this movement, named Thème Russe: Allegro, Beethoven obliged Razumovsky by including a Russian tune. The players had illustrated it at the beginning: a quite slow, unremarkable theme. But Beethoven felt free to play fast and loose with it, turning it into a vivacious tune which gave him sufficient material for a joyous seven or eight minute finale which gave the players plenty of scope for their virtuosity and mastery of Beethoven’s intentions, to toy endlessly with his material particularly one of his deliciously prolonged codas. The NZSQ proved itself again completely in command of this wonderful composition.

Three Beethoven string quartets from brilliant Ébène Quartet: part of their world-wide project

Ébène Quartet
Pierre Colombet, and Gabriel Le Magadure – violins; Marie Chilemme – viola, Raphaël Merlin – cello

Beethoven Live
String Quartet No 2 in G, Op 18 no 2
String Quartet No 11 in F minor, Op 95 (‘Serioso’)
String Quartet No 10 in E flat, Op 74 (‘Harp’)

Michael Fowler Centre

Friday 25 October 7:30 pm

The concert by the Ébène Quartet was probably the most looked forward to concert of the 2019 Chamber Music New Zealand series, though Middle C this year is not really in a position to make a comprehensive comparison. We missed at least a couple of concerts, including that by the Brodsky Quartet in May.

Ébène is a quartet with far more strings to its bows than merely hard-core classical stuff. They are alleged to be equally at home in jazz and film music, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they ventured into heavy metal and hip-hop too.

One cannot shield oneself altogether from the influence of overseas critiques of prominent groups or from occasional hearings on RNZ Concert; and it was clear from the very first notes there was something remarkable here. The French quartet have, this and early next year, devoted themselves to celebrating Beethoven’s 250th birthday (December 2020) by performing all his string quartets around the world. And they are recording a 7 CD box for Erato Warner.

Opus 18 no 2 in G
They had the secret of making each of the three quartets chosen for New Zealand (one  other concert, in Auckland) sound like an extraordinary masterpiece, and furthermore, sound as if one had never heard the piece properly before. Op 18 no 2 opened in the most fragile and delicate way imaginable.  But nothing was so febrile that it didn’t emerge meaningfully, with clarity and wide-ranging emotional liveliness and depth, – particularly the interesting development section. The hesitant refinement of the Adagio cantabile seemed to be a matter of delicacy rather than lyricism, though the uniqueness of the second movement comes with the unexpected Allegro that bursts uninvited on the movement’s predominant spirit, and just as abruptly reverts to the character of the first section again.

In the sparkling Scherzo it struck me that in places there was a curious contrast between the melody line and the lower strings; and even though it’s one of the early instances of the Minuet movement being replaced by a Scherzo, Beethoven fills it with unexpected twists that the players exploited with taste and wit.

And the last movement sustains the spirit of what G major is thought to suggest: spirited, perhaps rustic, though such notions strike a cynic, without perfect pitch, as fanciful. Nevertheless, the Allegro molto finale met these expectations with special delight and imaginativeness.

No 11 in F minor – ‘Serioso’
The other two quartets were Nos 10 and 11, labelled as ‘late middle period’, and they are the last before the final five ‘Late Quartets’. This was probably written in 1811, first performed in 1814. If you’re paying attention to the spiritual nature of keys, this F minor quartet seems to fill the bill for F minor: grieving, melancholic; though the first movement is nevertheless full of energy, with abrupt dynamic changes, and the players highlighted these, emphasising the despair suggested by its quiet disappearance at the end. I’ve never heard the second movement, marked Allegretto ma non troppo, played with such hesitancy in spite of the second violin’s long staccato accompaniment that seemed to dominate the mood as others uttered quiet gestures that didn’t really consist of melody. The third movement is also entitled Allegretto, but ‘assai vivace ma serioso’, rather than Scherzo – which it emphatically is not. Its unchanging, intense disquiet was here expressed with more than usual subtlety and other-worldliness. The last movement opens with the most ‘serioso’ feeling of all – it’s marked Larghetto espressivo and even though it accelerates, a feeling of frenzied insecurity dominated the performance, and was alleviated by startling refinement. One is left uneasy even after the final frantic bars at high speed.

The Harp Quartet, Op 74
The title ‘Harp Quartet’ has always seemed to me an odd misnomer as the odd passages of pizzicato are hardly of critical significance in the score, in spite of the case made for them by the writer of the programme notes. The players began the Poco adagio introduction to the first movement with an infinite, remote subtlety that seemed to lie somewhere between the confidence of the Op 18 work and the sombre ‘Serioso’. But the Allegro itself departed at once from any hesitancy with an ebullient lyricism as well as, in this performance, almost a feeling of turmoil; though always with feet on the ground. The second movement, soberly labelled Adagio ma non troppo, has been variously characterised: it’s simply meditative and beautiful, and they played the long quiet passages with a dreamy unease.

Then the third movement, Presto, which Beethoven again avoids using the word Scherzo to describe, was strangely passionate, almost furious in its seriousness especially, after a couple of minutes, with the dynamic cello-led, chaotic sort of chase.  If it wasn’t for the tempo change from triple to common time, it’s easy to overlook the arrival of the last movement, which follows with hardly a pause, and which might be heard as something of an elaboration, emotionally, of the Presto.  It’s a protracted, complex movement, even though formally, it’s merely an old-fashioned theme and variations. The players invested it with a wonderful feeling of ease and ethereal richness; and the quirkiness of the final accelerated bars seemed to epitomise the wonderful range and expressive variety that this quartet could bring to performances of the greatest music.